Jan Saperstein, a commercial property owner in downtown Sandy Springs, attended the March 22 Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods meeting. Saperstein said his group, the Main Street Alliance, no longer supports building a City Hall on property at Johnson Ferry Road

Plans to build Sandy Springs’ future city hall on Johnson Ferry Road now face unlikely opposition – a group of downtown property owners who previously supported the idea.

The Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods on Thursday night, March 22, held a forum on the future of the city’s downtown. Jan Saperstein, owner of Sandy Springs Plaza and a member of the Main Street Alliance, said the group now says the city should turn the former Target property at 235 Johnson Ferry into a park.

“We have totally gone 180 degrees different,” Saperstein told the audience. “Tonight we are here to tell you, as the property owners up and down Roswell Road, that we feel that Target property is best suited, unequivocally, as a park. Sandy Springs has the least amount of green space. Parks lift everybody’s boat higher. We’re all partners. When your values go up on your home, our values go up.”

In April 2011, the Main Street Alliance painted a different picture of what a downtown should look like. A report the group gave to the City Council said the municipal complex should go on the former Target site. The Main Street Alliance isn’t an ordinary civic association. Its voice will boom louder than most. Its membership is made up of the owners of more than 50 parcels of commercial property in the downtown area, totaling 1.5 million square feet on 125 acres.

Saperstein said a city hall will not increase the value of businesses and property around it, but a park definitely would.

“A park is going to give everyone else a front door,” Saperstein said. He said a city hall would be costly for taxpayers. “That city hall’s tush is going to be somebody’s front door.”

When asked why the group changed its mind, Saperstein said, “ The evidence is just overwhelming for the benefits of a park.”

In this video, Jan Saperstein discusses why the Main Street Alliance thinks the city should build a park on the Target site.

The group is now at odds with Mayor Eva Galambos, who unequivocally supports putting the city hall on the 6.9 acre parcel on Johnson Ferry.

Galambos said Friday morning, March 23, said there are a number of cities where a new meeting space has sparked a redevelopment, including Duluth, Smyrna, Snellville, Riverdale and Garden City.

“All of these cities have recently had wonderful development that was a result of their new city halls,” Galambos said. “If a park was such a wonderful stimulus to development our 5 acre heritage park smack in the middle of downtown sandy springs should have made a huge success of City Walk, which is in bankruptcy.”

The Main Street Alliance announcement adds a layer of complexity to the controversy surrounding the mayor’s vision.

Peeling back the layers

Some members of the community in 2008 questioned purchasing the Target site and continue to question it. Since the city purchased the property, voters elected three new people to serve on the City Council. Some council members now say they want to know if there are alternatives to the Target site.

Recently discovered information about the property purchase has fueled the debate.

When the City Council paid $8 million for the site in 2008, it told residents the city got a bargain, saying it paid $1 million per acre. The Sandy Springs Reporter newspaper reviewed the property appraisal in January and discovered it was based on the parcel containing 8 acres while a survey shows the property is actually 6.9 acres. There were also non-compete covenants on the property that would’ve limited its commercial uses, but the appraisal did not take these into account.

City officials and the appraiser say these factors would not have affected the conclusion the property was worth the $8 million the city paid for it.

A difficult decision

The most controversial part of the mayor’s plan is the question of whether the city will force the owners of property around the Target site to move so it can make room for the municipal complex. Some of these property owners say they aren’t interested in selling. And some City Council members say they are reluctant to use the city’s power of eminent domain to force them to sell at a fair market rate.

There’s another issue that has received little attention. The Target site shares a wall with the Goodwill Store, and there’s been no word on whether the store’s owners are willing sellers. It is uncertain whether the city would be able to do anything with the property without owning the Goodwill Store first, a situation that may force the council to use eminent domain.

The speakers at the March 22 meeting were divided between making the area a park or pushing ahead with the municipal complex.

Larry Young, a city judge and president of the Council of Neighborhoods said he supports the idea. D.J. DeLong, president of the Heritage Sandy Springs Board of Trustees, also sides with the city hall plan, reminding the audience that in the 1920s that area was the commercial heart of Sandy Springs.

Mark Moore, a former employee of Sandy Springs, said the city should bulldoze the site and make it a park. Moore also served on the team of city employees that met with the Main Street Alliance when it compiled its 2011 report.

Nina Cramer, founder of the nonprofit Trees Sandy Springs, supports the current plan. Linda Bain, Executive Director of the Sandy Springs Conservancy, thinks it should be a park.

The city recently hired Boston firm Goody Clancy to draw up its downtown master plan. The final report is due in November.

Young said the mayor is set on the Target property, but added Goody Clancy might consider other alternatives during the public input period. The first public meeting with the firm is scheduled for May 8.

“It will depend on what the city hears, what the planning group says,” he said. “We don’t have any inside track.”

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com